Xuan Paper Making - a UNESCO intangible heritage

Xuan paper making matured over 1,000 years ago in the Tang dynasty, following original invention of paper by Cai Lun (7-121) and is regarded as one of the “Four Treasures of the Study“.  Today, Xuan paper is still made by master craftsmen using traditional techniques, recognised by Unesco and inscribed into the Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2009.

This article is about the making of the paper, click here to read more about the different types of paper and their usages and Xuan Paper Buyer’s Guide.

Why is it called Xuan Paper?

Xuan paper  – Xuan Zhi 宣纸 – takes its name from XuanZhou, the river port from where this paper was originally sold, and transported by rivers and canals to the main towns of ancient China.   XuanZhou is now a district of XuanCheng 宣城 which literally means Xuan City.

Qing Tan Tree
Qing Tan Tree

In the West Xuan paper is sometimes misleadingly described as rice paper.  It does contain rice straw, however the distinctive ingredient is tree bark:  the highest quality papers contain 70-85% bark and only a small proportion of rice straw. Xuan paper is therefore made in the villages of 泾县 Jīng Xiàn (Jing County), a mountainous area home to the key ingredients: pure fresh mountain water streams and the 青檀 qing tan – Pteroceltis tatarinowii or Blue Sandalwood tree.

The whole tree can be put to good use:  the bark is used for paper, the wood makes good timber, and the berries and oil are used in the making of ink.

IMG_5488_副本
Tree barks are the most important Xuan paper raw materials.

Normally a non-destructive harvesting process is used where 2-year old branches are harvested for bark, after which the tree continues to grow new branches.

The production process is also now highly regulated and controlled to ensure that standards are maintained – including environmental standards – the clean water is one of the key ingredients!

How is Xuan paper made?

Our photos below from the paper workshops give you an idea of how the Xuan Paper is made.

First the bark and raw materials are prepared:

A slurry is mixed of the spring water and fibres, and a sheet of paper is collected on a screen.  (There are also two-person screens for the largest sheet sizes).

The sheet of paper can then be lifted off the screen and placed onto a stack of wet papers.

The papers are individually dried on these large heated metal plates, then they are trimmed and packed into packs of 100 sheets.

Xuan paper Shop

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